An Elephant in the Garden
Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)
Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home. But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell. It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire. Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home. The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west. They would go west, but they would not be going alone. They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo. It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.
Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is. An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers. In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death. The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack. If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.
At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story. Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.
When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend. She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself. It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me. I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it. To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.” Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com